One Organization, Two Ideas About Innovation
I spent most of last weekend doing what I hope you did: I spent a lot of time with family, I enjoyed some home-cooked meals, and I took advantage of the surprisingly temperate November weather in DC. This social and highly engaged behavior couldn't last a whole four-day weekend, of course. So late one evening I caved and wound up retreating into Netflix Instant, which is now showing Page One, a documentary about a legacy organization that has a powerful brand name but is struggling to overcome "that's the way we've always done it" thinking and find new ways to innovate and provide value.
Which is to say, it's about The New York Times. The film follows a year in the life of the paper circa 2010, as it attempts to respond to a collapsing advertising market and the explosion of countless new communications tools that threaten to render dead-tree media obsolete. Various pundits (including past ASAE Annual Meeting speaker Clay Shirky) smartly discuss the paper's prospects going forward, but the heart of the movie is the collection of writers and editors around the Times' media desk. They had plenty of big stories to cover: the Tribune Media company declared bankruptcy, WikiLeaks released a raft of classified files, NBC Universal announced a merger with Comcast. At every turn the reporters and editors needed to do the same thing: Test the available facts for their accuracy and for how they're being pitched. Stakeholders want their stories to appear in a certain way in what was once universally accepted as the paper of record. It's the job of Times reporters to push back against that spin.
The irony here is palpable: While the Times' reporters are challenging received wisdom practically as part of their job descriptions, they're doing it at an institution that's often been loath to break free of old models of thinking. That mistake is as true at associations as it is at the Times; in some ways that behavior is baked into the very being of organizations. In 1977, sociologists John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan wrote a paper, "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony," (PDF) that argued that an organization tends to sustain itself in part by perpetuating "myths" about itself—stories that can be damaging when they're invoked to put the brakes on any attempts at change. (In case you don't feel like curling up with scholarly articles, a brief summary is here.) It strikes me that the problem at the Times is that it maintains two contradictory institutional impulses:
- At the rank-and-file level it respects a base of employees that questions and challenges as part of its duties.
- At the leadership level it cultivates a resistance to change, precisely because it's constructed a myth about itself around point #1.
I'm being a little broad-brush here. Certainly the Times has been much more savvy about responding to new technologies and reader habits than a lot of its media brethren. But it makes me wonder if some associations that prioritize innovation do it at all levels—celebrating it in certain departments, or around certain initiatives, but not around the entire organization and not at the level of leadership. Often innovation is something that's discussed as something that needs to trickle down to staff and members; what if it needs to trickle up to leadership?
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